The teams in first place in the National and American Leagues on the Fourth of July will win the pennants.
—OLD PATRIOTIC BROMIDE
Surely it is no mere happenstance that the last two words of The Star-Spangled Banner are "Play Ball!" There must be some psychic connection between the anthem and the games Americans play. Why is that? Almost never is the Banner sung at public events of a nonsporting nature. The anthem never serves as a prelude to a movie or opera or ballet or Wheel of Fortune.
It is odd, too, that we require this patriotic certification of our dalliance with sports, for ours is among the least chauvinistic of sporting nations. Save for the rare exceptions, as when we played the Soviets in hockey at the 1980 Olympics, our most passionate rivalries are between colleges or cities. It is individual athletes, not teams, whom we choose to honor. Indeed, it is one of the finest practical displays of our highfalutin democratic ideals that any competitor is eligible for our support—regardless, as holiday orators like to say, of race, color, creed or country of national origin.
Is it fair (or merely presumptuous?) to assume that we love our country so surely, so deeply, so truly, that we need no athletic icons on the silly playing fields to prove our patriotism? Or could it be that we are just so big and rich and diverse that we don't identify all that much with one another?
June 29, 1986
It is an article of faith that Americans will cheer for the underdog, just as we never again want to be the underdog ourselves. And, too, sadly, in spite of everything we learned in our third-grade civics class, we can be horribly prejudiced about our fellow citizens who happen to be different. Yeah, sure, the Indians are the only real Americans, but they haven't won a pennant in 32 years and some of the rest of us are realer Americans than others.
Yet as smug and biased as Americans can be, most of us do appreciate how serendipitous is our presence here. My great-grandfather made the boat that day, but yours slept in. We blithely accept the notion that everybody in the world is either an American or a potential American. So any athlete can comfortably be cheered for, no matter what his nationality of the moment may be. Americans see the whole of humankind as made up of so many recruits, draft choices and free agents. It's a doable, Iacoccable world that the new and improved Miss Liberty shines over:
Give me your quick, your coaches, your phenoms,
Your funny-named kickers yearning to uprights split,
And your jockeys and rightfielders of a Caribbean isle.
Send these, the talented and endorsable, to me.
I give them green cards and places in the lineup.
While Martina Navratilova is, surely, the greatest athlete ever to immigrate to America at the height of a career, she follows in a long line of foreigners who came to perform in the U.S.—either as new citizens or as resident aliens. It wasn't until 1936, the 11th modern Olympics, that the Games ended without at least one immigrant winning a gold medal for America. Indeed, the very first gold medal in the first modern Olympics in 1896 was won by an American immigrant, James Connolly. He won the hop, step and jump. Connolly was one of the many Irish-born who led our early track and field squads. As late as 1972, Olga Fikotova Connolly, from Czechoslovakia, carried the flag for the United States in Munich.
Try to guess the names of the following immigrants, each of whom made a substantial impact on American sports (answers, page 55):
The last foreign-born American to win an Olympic gold medal, at Los Angeles in 1984, was a basketball player from Kingston, Jamaica 1)——. The most famous game-deciding home run in baseball history, the shot heard round the world, was struck by a man born in Glasgow, 2)——. The Doomsday Defense of America's Team is coached by an immigrant from Bavaria named 3)——. Both the man who created the Harlem Globetrotters in 1927, 4)——, and the first commissioner of the NBA, 5)——, were born in Europe. One of America's first professional baseball players, a cricket expert from Sheffield, England, was 6)——. The former Black Hawk and four-time NHL scoring champ who is now an assistant golf pro outside of Chicago, 7)——, came from Czechoslovakia.
Don Budge's doubles partner was an immigrant who came here from Hungary, 8)——. The U.S. won the Davis Cup in 1958 by using a Peruvian ringer named 9)——. Pancho Segura came to the U.S. from Ecuador. Cliff Drysdale, Kevin Curren and Johan Kriek arrived from South Africa and so did America's fastest black miler, 10)——. The man who was the Gipper's coach under the Golden Dome was a Lutheran from Norway named 11)——. During this past NBA season, the Dallas Mavericks could have put an all foreign-born lineup on the floor: 12)——, ——, ——, —— and——. The only American citizen to win the World Driving Championship in the past 25 years is an Italian immigrant named 13)——. The English-born jockey who rode the winner of the 1943 Kentucky Derby and held the record for the most races won in the U.S. is 14)——. His mark of wins has since been topped by Willie Shoemaker, who also hails from a foreign nation, Texas. (Old joke.) Argentinean immigrant Horatio Luro trained two Derby winners. The Frenchman who rode the three Triple Crown races astride Seattle Slew in 1977 is 15)——. And this list doesn't make mention of all the Hispanic jockeys, trainers, Alous, early Scottish golfers, hockey players from Canada and indoor soccer players from anywhere.
Willi Plett is an American who has played in the NHL, but he was born in Paraguay. Jack Kent Cooke, American citizen, Canadian-born, current Redskin owner, built the Forum in Los Angeles for the teams he then owned, the Kings and Lakers. The Kings had not been drawing. Said Citizen Cooke: "Statistics show there are something like 800,000 Canadians who have immigrated to Southern California. Now I know why. Those were the 800,000 Canadians who didn't like hockey." Bronko Nagurski was also born in Canada. Moe Drabowsky emigrated from Poland and Bert Blyleven, a Minnesota Twin, is from the Netherlands, but Bert needs to win 68 more games to catch up with the leading mound immigrant, Tony Mullane, who came from County Cork to post 285 victories from 1881 to '94.
When Castro finally let him out of prison in 1968, Kid Gavilan, the world welterweight boxing champion from 1951 to '54, escaped to Florida, leaving his mother and wives No. 1, 2 and 3 behind in Cuba. Laszlo Tabori, the third man ever to run a four-minute mile, was among the 34 Hungarian Olympians who defected to the U.S. during the '56 Summer Games in Melbourne. Ludmila Belousova and her eventual husband, Oleg Protopopov, twice won Olympic gold medals for pairs in figure skating in the '60s before fleeing from the Soviet Union to join the Ice Capades. A more recent world-class athlete to defect from a communist country, Jens-Peter Berndt of East Germany in 1985, now swims for the University of Alabama.
Love-across-the-Iron-Curtain, final chapter: Olga Fikotova Connolly and her American Olympic sweetheart, Harold Connolly, are divorced now. Not even the storybook romances seem to work out anymore.
A few athletes, notably Sonja Henie and Conan—Arnold Schwarzenegger—settled in the U.S. as entertainers after their athletic careers concluded. Lots of Australian tennis players and golfers start off nesting a few months each year in the States but when their championship days are over, most of them end up staying in this country permanently, playing good customer's games in the Sunbelt. Harry Hopman, whose name was synonymous with Australian tennis domination in the '60s, spent the last decade of his life instructing young Americans, e.g. John McEnroe, on how to beat the fearsome Aussies. McEnroe, who first saw the light of day at a U.S. military hospital in West Germany, has had, apart from Hopman, only one other coach—Tony Palafox, a former Mexican Davis Cupper who moved to Long Island.
It's a small world.
Of course, it's fashionable to say that Miss Liberty herself can look past all of Ellis Island's huddled masses and tell the story of immigration to the United States by simply reciting from The Ring Record Book & Boxing Encyclopedia. As every mother's son knows, pugilism in the late 19th century featured the Irish-Americans, midway on their journey from the great potato famine to the Kennedy White House. Gentleman Jim Corbett. The Boston Strongboy, John L. Sullivan. Philadelphia Jack O'Brien. And then it was the Italians and the Eastern Europeans who began to find their way onto the fight cards—although you can't always take a boxer's heritage at face value because if the promoters were short an ethnic type at the box office, they would transform a Ginsberg into a Spinelli overnight. Next, of course, came the American blacks, emigrating from the Jim Crow laws, and after them the many fighters from the Caribbean—Trevor Berbick, Mike McCallum and Livingstone Bramble, all of whom presently hold both world titles and U.S. alien cards.
Actually, though, boxing really doesn't tell the whole story of immigration. It merely reveals who was on the bottom of society's heap, who was getting beaten up by the system outside the ring. At a time, for example, when the Irish and Germans were dominating baseball, when almost every major leaguer seemed to be a Paddy or a Dutch, only the Irish were prominent in boxing. The Germans never suffered enough discrimination to volunteer for blow-by-blow. The Germans were so dominant on the baseball diamond, though, that the greatest Russian-born player of all time, Odessa's own Dimitri Ivanovich Dimitrihoff, chose to go by Rube Schauer as his nom de box score. Ja-wohl.
Still, boxing is one of the two foreign sports that America has deigned to accept. (Horse racing is the other.) Golf and tennis came over from the British Isles and carved out a certain province, but they remained upper-class diversions (and thus patently un-American) until very recently. Lacrosse and hockey slipped across the border from Canada, but they occupy only regional fiefdoms in the U.S. to this day. And soccer, dear soccer, the world's plaything—soccer cut it just about everywhere on the face of the earth except where God has smiled His kindest.
As sure as immigrants—or immigrant children—sought to Americanize themselves by speaking English instead of the language they brought from the old country or heard at home, by drinking Moxie and eating hot dogs and ice cream, so did they eschew soccer and turn to new-world pursuits. Oscar Handlin, the historian, has written that politics, sports and the rackets were the best knockabout ways up: "For in these three endeavors were the closest approximations to the American standards of achievement open to persons like themselves. In no other way could the children of newcomers readily earn the appreciation of the whole society."
Never forget that the expression All-America came from sports. All-American, total American. Baseball, every-man's game—and you could turn a buck at it, too. Football, which the fancy-dan college boys favored to prove their manhood. This new indoor thing, basketball, which seemed, incredibly, to appeal equally to the Jewish tenement kids and the blond farm boys of the Midwest. America had its very own games, as it had its own dreams and credo, and the new boy here who would be all American could get there fastest through sports. The girls had a harder time. Probably that's why Hollywood eventually had to be invented.
But that's another story.
There were 238 of them assembled the other day in a sweltering Connecticut high school auditorium that was serving as a U.S. District Court. There were men and women, of all shapes and tongues, kaleidoscopic in their hues, from almost every latitude, 30 different nations. Some were very old, too. Why did they even bother to go through the long naturalization process? So that someday soon they could die citizens of the United States? But others were so young, barely newer to America than to life itself. They were quite a group.
Judge T.F. Gilroy Daly came out in his robes and said that this was the best duty he was ever assigned, making new Americans. And then, when the swearing in was done, with a great deal of confidence the judge said, "I have no doubt the United States is better now than it was a few moments ago."
The newest citizens put down their right arms, and three of the youngest, two high school boys from Colombia and Cambodia and a little girl from the Philippines, went up on the stage and, with their right hands over their hearts, led the 235 other immigrants in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, to onenationunderGodindivisiblewithlibertyandjusticeforall. And that was all she wrote. It took only a few minutes, even counting the opening national anthem, just like it was a ball game. In fact, after all the immigrants had gone forward to pick up their certificates and their American flags, it would have been a good day for a ball game.
Let's play two.
Not one of the 238 looked like what the scouts call a prospect. As ballplayers, there wasn't a blue chipper in the bunch—not a Tony Perez or a Sally Little or a John Lee among them. On the other hand, any number of the new citizens looked like they could go right home, slap a beer out of the fridge and turn on the TV to catch Skip Caray broadcasting the Braves on the SuperStation—and they could criticize Chuck Tanner for not pinch-hitting for McMurtry every bit as fast and authoritatively as natural-born citizens do. It doesn't take much to be a sports fan. And then you're in the club with all the other clowns, and the rest of being an American is easy.
The thing about sports the world over—hockey in the U.S.S.R. or soccer in Chile, rugby in Australia or baseball in Cuba—is that they're all played very much the same, with everybody on the field getting an even chance. This is the way games are played; otherwise it wouldn't make much sense bothering to schedule them.
But the funny thing is: The United States was almost alone in being smart enough to start off patterning itself after games. Other countries patterned themselves after tribes and armies and families and religions. So apart from the U.S., a lot of other countries had unfair governments and fair games. It was no wonder, given a choice, that people liked the games more. And then the word got around that, foolish as it sounded, the United States had itself a government just like sports.
So, it is no wonder that people from all over the world keep coming here and crooking their right arms. Perhaps the best thing you can say about the United States of America is that it's still a real good game.
1) PATRICK EWING
2) BOBBY THOMSON
3) ERNIE STAUTNER
4) ABE SAPERSTEIN
5) MAURICE PODOLOFF
6) HARRY WRIGHT
7) STAN MIKITA
8) GENE MAKO
9) ALEX (THE CHIEF) OLMEDO
10) SIDNEY MAREE
11) KNUTE ROCKNE
12) ROLANDO BLACKMAN (PANAMA); JAMES DONALDSON (ENGLAND); UWE BLAB AND DETLEF SCHREMPF (WEST GERMANY); BILL WENNINGTON (CANADA)
13) MARIO ANDRETTI
14) JOHNNY LONGDEN
15) JEAN CRUGUET